Statue of man putting crown on his own head.

A confluence of conversations has emerged in the yoga world regarding purpose, safety, and abuse of power.

The politics involved are playing themselves out, and the sides of the debate are being formed along disparate lines. The microcosm of what has been occurring in practice rooms for more than a decade is now bursting forth in a macrocosmic confusion around where people stand. As communities struggle to make sense of confusing emotions and contradictory viewpoints, a careful examination of where we might actually be able to effect change is in order.

Being a white man, and the product of a culture with a rich history of oppressing others, I often find myself on shaky ground these days.

The grassroots voices of teachers and students are questioning and challenging patriarchy in new ways. My privilege is unavoidable and sometimes feels like an obstacle to open dialogue. I have been writing and inviting people on my podcast, to better educate myself about my own blinders and embrace the changing paradigm. But my earnest attempt to listen and share my experience has received mixed responses. The warriors out there fighting to overturn deeply entrenched power dynamics are not all too interested in hearing what yet another white man thinks or feels about anything, and understandably so.

Yet, white men need to be part of these conversations. After all, we are the oppressors. We are the ones privileged just because of our gender and skin. We are responsible for often reinforcing unjust power differentials. So, we are going to need to be a big part of whatever solutions might be had. Otherwise, the empowerment that people are looking for is likely to be met with continued obfuscation. Men, in general, tend to be a defensive bunch when the power we’ve become accustomed to is challenged.

Maybe white men can do more than just perpetuate oppression.

To many, white men are the root of the problem. There is no reason to believe that they will give up the privilege and power they’ve been born into. The rampant misogyny in our society has created deep wounds in us all. Even to such an extent that earnest attempts to heal often fail due to unconscious behaviors that put us right back into the roles we are wishing to escape. Therefore, these wrongs must be fiercely called out and justice must be served.

But for others, the current wave of calls to action is mostly a form of liberal orthodoxy that is ultimately detrimental. Not unlike sentiments echoed by professional comedians who no longer wish to perform on college campuses where it seems political correctness has now trumped the ability of people to appreciate an irreverent joke, some are of the view that too much “trauma-sensitivity” is really just coddling that takes power away from people rather than give it back.

The history of oppression by white men is undeniable. However mixed the motives and results, white men have also played important roles in promoting human rights and social equality. There must be a way to acknowledge wrongs and stop further disempowerment without simply making people feel guilty for things in our complicated and contradictory history that they had nothing to do with. Raising awareness of the injustices that separate us, to the exclusion of what unites, is counter-productive.

Is including trauma-sensitivity in yoga teacher training the answer?

A chorus of voices are pushing and scrambling to secure a market share, for the inclusion of trauma-sensitivity training in the standards for yoga teachers. The hope is that if we better train teachers to be more sensitive to issues of abuse and ethical behavior then we can prevent the harm that so many are reckoning with. Generally speaking, this involves changing the language we use to be more inclusive and less potentially “triggering” for people with trauma, and a more stringent set of guidelines for touching students and relationships outside of the classroom.

At risk of riding on my privilege, I am not convinced that trauma-sensitivity training is the answer to these deep dysfunctions. I just don’t trust that adding a new category, with a set of hours, to the Yoga Alliance“standards” is really going to do what people are hoping it will. Don't get me wrong, I support a pledge of ethics and education on creating safe spaces and avenues of redress. But outside of these measures, there is little else that can be done. As much as we might like to have a governing body that could regulate people better, no such entity exists. Nor is it plausible that the yoga industry will find consensus enough to adopt an agency with the power to license and punish.

Crossed boundaries and mistreatment in yoga spaces are not merely the result of human frailty or a lack of regulation, but also of a flawed paradigm of practice. The long-standing convention of pushing ourselves and others to accomplish physical or spiritual goals, often in service or deference to an outside authority, is the fertile ground that enables the misgivings we lament to grow. We have disassociated people from poses. We have made touching impersonal. We have embraced goals outside of functional body health and embracing our given condition. Perhaps if this can be undone, we can know the safety and nurturing we all deserve.

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About The Author

J. Brown's picture

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com

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